North Korea: Trumps First Big Success?

After a disastrous last 2 weeks domestically, President Trump may be securing an improbable success in foreign policy with his changes in strategy for dealing with China over North Korea. In the past year with its nuclear detonations and ballistic missile trials, North Korea has become an ever more dangerous player in East Asia.The chances of a dangerous North Korean  miscalulation or a rogue action striking South Korea, Japan, or even China cannot be ruled out.

And despite 20+ years of negotiations with 6 party talks among China, US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea, the timeline of increasing belligerence in the North Korean development of nuclear and ballistic missile has gotten worse with every passing year. This is even more alarming given that extreme North Korean national  poverty has also been the prevailing condition over much of the period. Simply put, North Korea should not be able to afford a nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

So clearly, the US has to take a new approach to negotiations with North Korea and that is exactly what the Trump Administration is doing:

  1. Rex Tillerson announced possible sanctions against Chinese banks & companies‘ aiding North Korean missile and nuclear programs
  2. Rex Tillerson also announced no military options are off the table in dealing with North Korea
  3. Defense Secretary Mattis cited vital role of THAAD anti-missiles in protecting South Korea despite China’s objections
  4. White House is in talks to supply arms to Taiwan to Chinese chagrin

And then President Trump topped it off with this Tweet on the weekend:

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In sum, prior to two day of talks with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in early April, President Trump appears to be lining up ever more “persuasive” bargaining chips to force China to take more decisive action to control North Korea. The question then becomes- how much influence does China have on North Korea?

China’s Role in Propping Up North Korea

MIT’s Atlas of Economic Activity reports on the level of Exports and Imports of North Korea. The latest numbers for 2015 are $3,6B imports and $2.8B in exports thus leaving North Korea with a annual deficit of $0.5 billion. So clearly North Korea is living beyond its means. More important is the fact that in 2015 China consumes 83% of all North Korean exports. So Chinese buyers propel the North Korean economy. Likewise on the import side China supplies North Korea with 85% of its good and services. Talk about a stranglehold on the North Korean economy. Simply put North Korea could not be doing its missile and nuclear development without China’s tacit and explicit economic support. China is the economic engine that keeps North Korean belligerence alive.

Why does China do this? Well the Chinese answer is, according to the Washington Post, a six word motto – No War, No Instability, No Nukes

We are told No War because “the Korean War, which cost hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives and almost ended with a unified, pro-American Korea right on China’s border is Beijing’s nightmare“. Read this as surely self serving as a united Korea would be a economic powerhouse that China does not want to contend with.

We are told No Instability because “Beijing wants to keep North Korea from collapsing, which could cause China all sorts of problems — streams of Korean refugees, loose nuclear materials (see priority No. 3) and the risk of the war that China so wants to avoid“. This sounds preposterous without suspicious actions  and reasoning about refugees by China.

We are told No Nukes because “this clearly last of these three, as China would prefer a stable and nuclear North Korea to an unstable but nuke-free one“. This reason really returns to the Chinese fear of a united Korean economic powerhouse as seen in this analysis.

More telling is the renewal in 2001 of the mutual defense treaty between China and North Korea. Why would China see the need of defense support from North Korea? Clearly this mutual defense treaty provides little to China but much to North Korea – a NATO-like commitment to North Korea until 2021.

Clearly false reasoning offered by China and  some analysts is that economic collapse would create a momentous refugee problem. Supposedly  hundreds of thousands of North Koreans would flood into economically depressed Northern China. Not likely given that economically prosperous South Korea would a)be receptive to accepting refugees and b) the more likely direction of North Korean migration.


So with this as backdrop, President Trump and  Chairman Xi Jinping will be attempting to negotiate a way forward to reducing if not eliminating a nuclear armed North Korea. Obviously Kim-jong-un  does not need this nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal given the defense treaty with a much more robustly armed China. So then the pivotal question is what does China gain by allowing a poverty stricken state with unstable leadership  to retain nuclear and ballistic missile arms? Trump Team’s actions is clearly putting this question on the negotiation table. This is potentially a very good starting point for Team Trump.

However, Donald Trump may be just as erratic a leader as North Korea’s Kim-jong-un – he has proven to be the President who could grasp Defeat from the Jaws of Victory as well as vice versa.


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